In the syllabus this spring, I included achievements for perfect attendance and near-perfect attendance. These achievements had high point values– I had high hopes that students would attend class regularly.
It’s not that I believe my presence is magical and that students will learn so, so much from me. No, quite the opposite; I wanted my students to show up so that the workshops would be robust and awesome.
Of course, showing up and being awesome in workshop aren’t necessarily one and the same, but I figured that we couldn’t get to the latter if we couldn’t get the former. The results, however, were mixed.
I must admit that a lot of my thinking on classroom attendance has been shaped by a Freakonomics post. While I thought the idea of a market system for absences was novel, I was more engaged by some of the comments on the original post. A lot of commenters asked why you would bother with an incentive– if the class was engaging enough, the students would show up. But my philosophy of the classroom relies heavily on students learning from each other, and I have found that more than a few students are uncomfortable with that strategy. They believe that the instructor should be providing the knowledge, and have a hard time accepting that their peers’ feedback can be as or more valuable than mine. Sometimes, though, we’re able to change their minds by the end of the term.
I’d call this a huge success. 67% of students had a perfect attendance record, and a number of students continued to show up every day even after having secured an A with a few weeks remaining in the semester. 93% of students missed two or fewer classes. This was far and away the highest attendance I had ever had in a college course, despite having a “two absences or fewer” provision in my syllabus since I started teaching at Carolina.
Perfect attendance did not correlate with high grades in this small sample; I saw a greater distribution of low grades in this group than in the group that missed one or two classes.
Workshops had their ups and downs, but they definitely improved late in the semester when I had students breaking into small groups to discuss poems rather than working in the larger group. Even though they had more poems to prepare in the small groups, this didn’t seem to hinder their enthusiasm– the trade-off seemed to be that they knew they would be getting feedback on their own poems those days.
This class also bonded more as a group as the spring went on. I’d routinely come into the building and catch a glimpse of 7-8 of them out on the bench talking. One day, 13 of them were out there and decided that they’d demand that class be held outside. They seemed pretty intent on holding out until one student who hadn’t congregated with them came into the classroom and sat down. I think they felt like the strike had been broken.
Total flop. Only 13% of students had perfect attendance in the course, and a little less than half (47%) missed two or fewer classes. I had one student who had eight absences in ten weeks– given that we met three times a week, that was almost three full weeks of class that she missed, almost all of which was excused by the school administration.
But therein lies some of the issue: the high school already has good attendance policies. Students must get absences excused if they miss class, and there are punishments in place for unexcused absences. So an additional attendance policy was confusing and unnecessary. In a residential setting like this, sickness spreads quickly, and I had a couple students come to class miserable because they’d already burned their allowed absences on college and scholarship trips. And the fact is, at a high school, it’s far more important that they attend those scholarship interviews than a single class.
When students at the high school excuse an absence in advance, they have to indicate how they will make up the class or get the appropriate content. I asked students to be sure to get notes from a classmate, but rarely followed up on whether or not they did. And that came back to haunt me, as they would make statements in papers and posts that indicated fundamental lack of understanding of concepts that we covered in class and that those present had clearly mastered.
As a result, I had students whose understanding and “classroom capital” was all over the map, which made common vocabulary difficult and made some students feel that they were struggling mightily when they weren’t. While I don’t plan to use the attendance achievements at the high school level again, I am still working on the best way to take care of this issue. Additional readings don’t seem to be the answer, because a lot of the issues were things covered in the readings but then supplemented with classroom discussion or activities.
Workshops were, by and large, quite good. I clearly had some students who were e-mailing or chatting on their computers, which happened very infrequently in the college class. But instead of being a distraction, it was actually somewhat useful for determining who was disengaged, and I didn’t spend much time trying to squeeze blood from a stone by calling on them. The students who were interested in workshopping tended to stay very engaged and I was very happy with the quality of the discussion in most cases.
However, I worry that by not attending to students who were chatting and e-mailing, I may have sent the inadvertent message that some students were getting preferential treatment– high schoolers are very attuned to this. Those who were working hard out of a sense of obligation may have been upset that I didn’t come down on those who were “breaking the rules.” I just didn’t see it like that. I saw it as some students putting their energies in different places.
The syllabus also allowed for a few points if students came to visit in the first three weeks of class. 87% of the high schoolers and 93% of the college students took advantage of this opportunity. There was no correlation between this achievement and overall grade. Of the three students who didn’t visit, two were fine the whole time and clearly didn’t need much individual planning assistance. The third got behind and struggled mightily for a short while, but then had an amazing one-week turnaround after we met and built a recovery plan.
If you’d told me that the high school students would show up far, far less than the college student, I would have been greatly surprised. But that is exactly what happened. The high school students were far more likely to have other things scheduled during class time– athletic events, college interviews, dance competitions, service trips. The college students would occasionally ask about leaving early or coming late for similar items, and I would explain the policies and consequences and let them decide what their priorities were. Most chose the class.